Planning overhaul receives the thumbs up from administration

Planning inquiry at Morpeth Town Hall.'REF 2207149717
Planning inquiry at Morpeth Town Hall.'REF 2207149717

A political row has developed over proposed changes to the planning system in Northumberland.

The development management service at the county council believes that new measures need to be put in place in order to improve the speed and quality of its decisions.

They include removing the automatic trigger currently in place for the referral of an application to a planning committee when objections are made by a town or parish council and where five or more letters of support or objection contrary to officer recommendation are supplied by members of the public.

County officers say they are necessary because the criteria for Government intervention has got tougher for principal local authorities in the last two years.

The Labour group is in charge at County Hall and on Tuesday, its members of the policy board voted to recommend that these alterations should be approved by the full council at its next meeting on April 1.

Leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups, Coun Peter Jackson and Coun Jeff Reid respectively, are also on the policy board.

They called for the plans to be deferred so the responses from town and parish councils could be fully considered and an all-party working group could be set up to discuss all the issues, which was defeated by an 8-2 vote.

Coun Reid said: “I can’t see any positive comments from the parish and town council responses.

“We’re going at this as if there’s a deadline. Until I see a letter saying that we must do something by a certain time or the Government will intervene, I can’t see why these changes have to be bulldozed through so quickly.”

The proposed changes were put forward following reviews by Deloitte, the county council’s external auditors, and Planning Officers Society Enterprises (POSe).

Coun Jackson said: “The POSe reports had strong words about the management of the planning system and areas such as how Section 106 agreements are dealt with and the problems with responses to applications from other departments in the council, such as highways.

“Addressing these issues will make a massive difference to the planning department, so to fully focus on committee structures is the wrong way forward.”

Coun Allan Hepple, policy board member responsible for housing, planning and regeneration, said in response to Coun Jackson that some restructuring and management changes had been implemented during the second half of 2014 following the POSe reviews and there has been an improvement in meeting targets for major applications since then.

He added: “I fully endorse the recommendations. These measures will improve the planning service so I think it would be counter-productive to delay them.

“I’ve come across examples of small applications going to planning committees, such as the removal of a fence and a an extension to a house, as a result of the current automatic trigger system.”